Our first true chaos event of the season hit last weekend with Purdue’s upset over No. 2 Ohio State.
It wasn’t just that Purdue won the game. Look no further than Clemson’s loss to Syracuse last year or to Pitt the year before to prove that a loss to an unranked team won’t disqualify the Buckeyes from playoff consideration. But the way Ohio State lost by getting dominated in every facet of the game to the tune of a 29-point drubbing has us totally recalibrating our post-season expectations.
With that unexpected outcome in mind, here are the inflection points for chaos to keep an eye out for the rest of the season for the top five playoff contenders.
Alabama: Nov. 3 at LSU
Losing on the road to a No. 4 team in the country isn’t typically chaos-inducing, it’s just football. But this Alabama team is measured on a different scale than the rest of the country. The reality is that unless Alabama loses to LSU, it would take an utter collapse for the Tide to miss the playoff. Mississippi State on the road doesn’t look like it has the offense to contend with Alabama. Auburn doesn’t look like a threat either, but if we allow the suspension disbelief because of the rivalry element, then even a loss in the Iron Bowl still wouldn’t keep a one-loss Tide out of the SEC Championship Game. And a win in Atlanta, even with a loss to Auburn, would still likely be a ticket to the playoff.
So that brings us back to LSU, where a win by the Tigers could knock Alabama out of the SEC Championship Game and would place the most dominant team in the country in the position of needing a lot of help to even have an argument for a playoff bid.
Clemson: Nov. 10 at Boston College
Now that Clemson has put together two dominating performances, we’ve finally got a top contender for Alabama. But it would be very on brand for college football to give us an upset in Chestnut Hill right as we settle in on a collision course for a national championship. Given Boston College’s ability to alter styles offensively while hitting big plays in the pass game as well as controlling time of possession with the run game, Steve Addazio’s squad is clearly Clemson’s biggest remaining test on offense for the Tigers. It has several NFL players on the defensive side of the ball as well. If Clemson loses to Boston College, it still has a clear path to an ACC title but it would be at the mercy of the committee with possible one-loss champs in the Big 12 and Big Ten in addition to Notre Dame’s lingering undefeated record.
Notre Dame: Nov. 10 at Northwestern
Speaking of Notre Dame, it has five games left on the schedule that it should win. It also has five games left on its schedule that it could lose. I don’t see the Irish falling to Navy with a bye week to prepare. I don’t see Florida State’s offensive line doing enough to slow down that Irish front seven. Syracuse doesn’t have the horses and USC is just not tough enough physically or mentally for this Notre Dame team. The team that is most likely to derail the Irish playoff plans is the same team that nearly lost to Rutgers last weekend: Northwestern.
This is just who Northwestern is. It is good enough and disciplined enough to be pesky for anybody, but doesn’t have the athletes to run lesser teams out of the building. This team can’t run the ball, so it won’t even try to against Notre Dame. It has a defense that can make Notre Dame drive the football and an offense that can play possession with a quarterback. A loss here would be tough to look past on a playoff resume.
LSU: Nov. 3 vs. Alabama
LSU is the chaos you fear. Sitting at 7-1, another loss likely knocks the Tigers out of the playoff and most have penciled in another loss as a matchup with Alabama looms. But should the Tigers dispense chaos on the college football world with an upset over the Tide, it would take control of its own playoff destiny.
Michigan: Nov. 24 at Ohio State
As Michigan continues its methodical march of destruction through its schedule, a common perception is taking hold that the Wolverines are now the best team in the Big Ten and a likely winner against Ohio State. I agree with the first contention. It feels unlikely that Michigan sustains another loss before the season finale against the Buckeyes. Both on paper and through the eye test, the Wolverines look like a better team than Ohio State. I’m just not sure the matchup favors the Wolverines in the same way that even Purdue’s matchup did. Ohio State is vulnerable in the pass game and Michigan has yet to prove it’s dangerous in that realm, and the Buckeyes will be extremely motivated at home.
What’s tricky about Michigan’s schedule is that while it controls its own destiny, a stumble in Columbus not only eliminates its playoff chances but it’s also the one thing that could breathe life back into the playoff hopes of its rival at Ohio State.
In retrospect, Ohio State’s flaws that were exposed by Purdue were painfully evident. There were just a lot of people that were willing to overlook them. Those flaws were Ohio State’s soft play in the second and third levels of the defense, and specifically the inability to limit explosive plays on defense (only Kent State and UConn have given up more plays of 30 yards or more). In that spirit, I wanted to see if I could identify some fatal flaws before another playoff contender gets clipped unexpectedly. Here are three to keep an eye on.
1. LSU ranks 98th in the country in yards per play on offense. You can explain it away with a nod to a tough schedule. You can point to the job LSU has done taking care of the football and protecting its defense. But you can’t ignore an aspiring playoff team being 98th in the country in yards per play. You can’t ignore an offense being ranked 124th in the country in scoring touchdowns in the red zone. A quarterback completing 53 percent of his passes with six touchdowns does have a shelf life. If LSU wants to beat Alabama and become a playoff team, now’s the time to ignite that offense.
2. Texas ranks 87th in the country in yards per play on offense. The Longhorns were the right matchup for Oklahoma. They’re physical and can play with efficiency on offense. They can grind out yardage with the running backs and the quarterback. They can move the chains with big wide receivers. But the explosiveness is not there. Texas is 95th in the country in plays of 20 or more yards and 115th in plays of 40 or more yards. Texas’ offensive is currently in the category of ‘good enough’. But that ‘good enough’ label only covers the Big 12. If Texas wants to contend in the playoff, more evolution is necessary.
3. Georgia’s defensive line is not what we’re used to. All of the advanced analytics point to Georgia being forgettable up front. So does the play. Georgia is an inoffensive 40th in the country in rush yards allowed per game. It’s a stout 15th in the country in third down conversions allowed. Its 19th in the country in red zone touchdown percentage. But the Bulldogs just aren’t creating much disruption. Georgia is 116th in the country in sacks per game and 119th in tackles for loss per game. Even the turnover number is down as Georgia is 85th in the country in takeaways. Georgia could continue to come back down to earth if it can’t generate more disruption on defense soon.
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